By Rose de Paulsen,
Sapphic Romantics and Neoclassical Fashion: Queering Bridgerton
Bridgerton (2020) premiered last December and influenced a rebirth in fashion for the months to come. Bridgerton is a beautifully crafted show, visually appealing especially to those who love fashion. But it did have distasteful moments, possibly because it had to follow the book’s plot. The character Henry Granville is the only LGBTQ+ character, and he suffers at the hands of Regency Era. He is forced into the closet and perpetuates the theory that a queer person had to, and still must exist in struggle and secrecy.
Though homophobia governed most European countries, the Napoleonic Code (est. 1804) had made a step forward by decriminalizing homosexuality. This followed the French Revolution, where French society changed drastically in a matter of a decade. This change, and the Napoleonic Code would influence the countries around France, but England would not follow suit until 50 years later. But despite homosexuality being outlawed, Molly Houses (houses where men meet men) still existed in England. Not to mention, Dandyism was very popular during the Regency Era, and it was usually critiqued for being overly fixated on men’s own appearances and adornment. Gay history proves that homosexuality was always prevalent, and it is usually male-centric.
Which begs the question, “Where is the lesbians in Bridgerton?” “Is the only queer character who gets a storyline a white man?” Certainly, there must have been other forms of queerness in the Regency Era/Neoclassical Era. Lesbians did not pop up in modern times or the last couple centuries. Surely if homosexuality has existed for men since the advent of civilization, the same must be for women and other identities. History has been focused a bit too much on the male experience but as recent as 2014 we have proof of an influential woman who loves women.
Sappho is regarded as one of Ancient Greece’s most influential poets, but more importantly her sexuality inspired both terms Lesbian and Sapphic to describe women loving women. Sappho and the words she inspired were found in many texts in the 1850s (most of them written by men). This gave some representation to lesbian love that was previously unnoticed, disregarded or coded as heterosexual. Since Sappho was incredibly influential to queerness, many scholars (usually men) would try and discredit her homosexuality as misinterpretation and claimed Sappho to be heterosexual. Sappho was depicted in many Greek plays, some mocking, others complementary. She clearly influenced her contemporaries as much as she influenced the poets of the Victorian Era.
Susan S. Lanser in her book The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic proves that Sapphics have been around for quite some time. Her book follows Sapphics in literature and European culture for roughly three centuries. A great example of women who fall outside heteronormativity are the Ladies of Llangollen. The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, sport masculine clothing and hair styles and live quietly together apart from a judgmental society. This is something that would have made Bridgerton (2020) even more intriguing and diverse. Hopefully this is something that could be incorporated and depicted on the show as the books seem to only feature straight couples. And it could easily be incorporated into storylines like Eloise Bridgerton, who in the books eventually marries, but for the show she has the potential to be queer as she has no interest in society’s oppressive customs of debuts and marriage.
The Neoclassical and Regency Era both had a complete fashion overhaul. The French leaders of fashion and politics preferred the artistic influences of the newly rediscovered Pompeii and had much admiration for ancient Greece and the Roman empire. The columnar silhouette with the empire waist was the new choice of dress for women and young ladies. This new dress style was significantly more freeing compared to the heavy, over-adorned dresses of royalty and upper class that flaunted opulence at the same time it restricted the wearer. An astonishing and short-lived change was to women’s hair. Coiffure a la Titus (Hair a la Titus) was based off Titus Junius Brutus, a historical character in Voltaire’s Brutus play. The actors cut their hair to imitate the ivory Roman statues. Women’s hair was similar in style, Hair a la Greque had woman pinning up their hair with tousled curls that gently framed their face. Some women cut their hair to mimic Coiffure a la Titus and made a strong fashion statement. Women would rarely cut their hair, in fact lower classes would only cut their hair to sell in desperation.
Though these androgynous looks were short lived, but they were freeing to women like the Ladies of Llangollen. Gender expression and sexuality had been blurred, if only a little. Kaz Rowe dove into The VERY Complicated History of Women with Short Hair, underlining the complicated implications short haired women had on history.
In my first year in Seneca Fashion Arts, I was tasked with re-imagining a time period’s dress. I chose to make Honor, a woman who loves women in an outfit inspired by traditionally masculine Neoclassical clothes. She keeps a pocket watch, an item that is usually given from father to son as it is expensive and precious. I imagined a woman similar to Bridgerton’s male lead except I had not researched if there were really women like her in history. I thought I created something somewhat original, but I was wrong. Lanser’s Coda is entitled: “We Have Always Been Modern”, referring to the fact Sapphics were always seen as a “Modern” concept despite being around for thousands of years, expanding throughout the world. History is filled with queerness and sexuality, and though it may have been hidden, time will reveal its truth.
It is important to depict homosexuality in history accurately. Most of the folks charged, jailed and even killed for homosexuality seem to be male. It is understandable to create characters that reflect the fears and attitudes of the time. However, since history is extremely male centric, hypothesizing and creating characters that feature women, trans, and other queer identities might shine a light on the silenced voices of the past.
Bridgerton in the SFRC
The SFRC has this frock coat from the Bridgerton era (early 1800’s) Accession #2-19E-21-06717
Rose de Paulsen pursued a practice-led research engagement with 18th century garments, by creating this design “Queering Bridgerton”:
Aaron, K. (2020, April 17). Homosexuality and the Napoleonic Code. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/gay-old-times/homosexuality-and-the-napoleonic-code-2a0a1e31d817.
Nicole G. Albert. (2016). Lesbian Decadence : Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France. Harrington Park Press, LLC.
Susan S. Lanser. (2014). The Sexuality of History : Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press.
Chris Mounsey. (2013). Developments in the Histories of Sexualities : In Search of the Normal, 1600–1800. Bucknell University Press.
Kaz Rowe. (2020, December 13). The very complicated history of women with short hair. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPkNVan7rWQ.